When I noticed that #RIPNME was trending today, it felt as if I’d taken a short, sharp jab to the heart. I placed my head in my hands. The taste of despair, sticky and suffocating, crept up the back of my throat. Once I regained the feeling in my fingers, I moved to close down the internet. Hours later, I still haven’t read any of what I’m sure are dozens of articles, think pieces, essays, elegies, mockeries, hit pieces, and other forms of psychic exhaustion trotted out in the slipstream of the death of the New Musical Express. I have no idea why they shut the red-and-white rag down. I don’t even know if it’s just the print issue taking a dive or the entire unwieldy, gossipy, decadent enterprise. I just can’t be bothered. I’m too upset.
I’ve yet to lose a parent. Most of my grandparents are still alive. None of my friends have committed suicide or died in-car crashes or suffered overdoses. So I may not know what true hurt feels like, but the apparent death of those three obnoxiously capped letters hits me hard.
For those of us unlucky enough to be coming into pop culture awareness in the early ’90s, the NME shone like a lone lighthouse on a foggy shore from the newsstands. You had Rolling Stone and Spin with their grunge covers featuring dour, plaid-clad, scowling bros and headlines about Seattle rain and heroin chic. One Rolling Stone cover actually featured the lead singer of the top rock band in the world, a man who had just become Illuminati-level rich, sporting a tee that read, “Corporate Magazines Still Suck”.
Ummmm, then why be on the cover of a corporate magazine then, Kurt?
The NME was nearly always shoved down on the second or third shelf in the music mag section, at least here in America, down with Bass Player and all the guitar nerd rags with Jimmy Page posing as a wizard on each cover. It kind of had to find you. For the one person out of a hundred who never really bought into the grunge tha’ng hook, line, and syringe, the NME would whisper from those bottom rungs, beckoning you with promises of a more colorful world.
I’ll never forget the first time it called to me. Borders Bookstore. I had just skimmed through some rote Spin Soundgarden article, putting it down once I realized that these dudes would be a drag to hang with backstage, when I noticed a crooked nose and even crooked-er teeth leering at me from down below. I didn’t know this person, who later turned out to be Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays, but I liked his bright red jumper. Even more importantly, he was smiling. Yes, smiling! I hadn’t seen a person in a band smile since I was 12 and started watching MTV in the late stages of the hair metal movement. And then there was the headline: “Excess All Areas”. This wasn’t the schlubby, face-down-in-the-crackhouse tortured genius addiction stories we were being fed from the mainstream rock press. This was fun. This was Day-Glo. This was hedonism. And for people like me, It was an olive branch to a much happier existence.
Through the pages of the NME one could escape the rainy grunge gutter that cut through the heart of youth culture in those days like a Trenchtown sewer. While the American rags ran headlines like “Scott Weiland: The Man Behind The Myth” or “Generation Suicide”, NME countered with a cover I can recall so vividly I didn’t even have to look it up for this piece. It featured a clearly fucked-up Evan Dando frolicking with Bjork and a headline exclaiming: “Venus And The Dopehead”. Stumbling across such an image at the magazine rack in the mid-’90s was like catching a glimpse of a glittering unicorn in the middle of an industrial park, a hint that life could be colorful and strange, that things weren’t really quite as grim as you were being led to believe.
It was little fits of sleazy genius such as this that I credit for saving me as a teen. The NME didn’t technically save my life, but I truly feel that it protected me from becoming some ripped-jeans-and-plaid guy moshing around at the Alice In Chains show, later transitioning into rap rock and sleeve tats, then finally crash landing at the local battery factory for a life of assembly line drudgery, mortgage slavery, and old Candlebox CDs on the dashboard. And if this isn’t salvation, then I don’t know what is.
Then came the Oasis years. Oh, the Oasis years. They seemed to stretch on for a decade or more, shielding me from a number of horrific trends like the arms of Brit Rock Angel. Nu Metal. Coldplay and Starsailor. Boy Bands. It cannot be overstated just how bizarre the Oasis obsession seemed in America where they were known as just another one hit wonder like their rivals Blur, who also got maximum NME cover treatment during this era. Each week it was “OASIS RETURNS!” Leaving you to wonder, “Where did they go? They just returned last week!” And then it was “Lad For It!” and “OASIS: A Storm In Devon” and “The Bruvvers Are Back” and “We Want It All, And We Want It Now” and “British Heavyweight Championship: Blur vs. Oasis” and “From Bonehead To The Brits With Britain’s Greatest Living Band” and something called “Knebworth” and then “Even Better Than Knebworth” and “I’m Sick Of It: Another Mad Week In The Life Of…OASIS” and “Ten Years On And Still Rocking And Rolling” and my personal existential fave, “Come On!” Truth be told, I didn’t even really like Oasis. But the drama was great and the decadence was of the fun variety. And it was better than reading about Fred Durst’s fave porn genres.
The Libertines and Strokes years were my personal favorite. Beginning sometime around 2001, suddenly every NME cover featured skinny dudes in tight jeans and military-style jackets who you just knew had secret knowledge of the very best bar in the world and had just come from there, their eyes peeled open by the revelations they had experienced. Just the fact that The Libs were thrust onto the cover, waving a Union Jack no less, after having only released one song was so obnoxious it was just PERFECT for the NME. And it continued for years and years and oh so many glorious years. I still recall the date and the mood I was in and the weather from the day I first saw the Pete Doherty cover (“CAR CHASES, BLACKMAIL, GANGSTERS: 24 HOURS ON THE RUN WITH PETE DOHERTY”) with his crack-spooked eyes and wife beater. The same article where he tried to jump out of a moving car at 80 miles per hour, where he showed up late to Gatwick airport when he was supposed to be at Heathrow, where his manager drank three Stellas and a half-bottle of vodka for breakfast. Coming at a time when Bloc Party and The Killers were being sold in America as “edgy”, this was like a clarion call from the void. It was a fading type of journalism, one that has more or less been wiped from existence, a potent combo of red top shock appeal, wide-eyed exuberance, and seemingly heartfelt sentiment. Winking at the chaos with a cuppa’ in hand and pinkies raised. It could not be denied that the NME truly did love these bands. Even as they were exploiting their escapades. The difference was that they seemed to be exploiting them not to sell papers but to create legends. It was myth that they were chasing. An escape hatch. And it was earnest in a way that none of the music rags of the time or the snarky blogs of the present would ever dare to be.
The NME truly believed that a leather jacket could change the world.
I will admit that I have more or less lost track of the NME for the past ten years or so. But still there have been the occasional heartwarming run-ins, like bumping into a friend from decadent years gone by. A friend still walking that tightrope. Still looking rough and living strange, but still possessing much of the charm you remember. Scanning the magazine rack at an airport in Paris, thrilled to see Pete peeking out at you all these years later (“PETE CUTS THE CRACK!”) or Liam, middle-aged but still sneering, still feuding with “Potato” Noel all these years later. Ah the NME, always there when you need it the most, hovering like a backstage pass in a detox center.
And it hurts to know it will be there on the third shelf no longer.
Pour out a Carlsberg for the NME. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And may flights of trilby-wearing angels sing thee to thy rest.